Nation & World

Judge's ruling means Trump administration must allow illegal border crossers to seek asylum

A Central American migrant receives a haircut inside an improvised refugee camp at the Benito Juarez sports center in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sunday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Alejandro Cegarra
A Central American migrant receives a haircut inside an improvised refugee camp at the Benito Juarez sports center in Tijuana, Mexico, on Sunday. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Alejandro Cegarra

The Trump administration on Tuesday was forced to resume processing asylum claims from migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, a bitter blow for a president who has waged an all-out effort - including the deployment of thousands of military troops - to stanch the flow of Central American families into the country.

President Donald Trump tried to bar those who cross the border illegally from seeking asylum earlier this month, saying they could only qualify if they waited in line at a legal checkpoint.

As several migrant caravans trudged through Mexico toward the United States, Trump had troops unfurl miles of razor wire at border hotspots and pelted migrants with tweets, calling them “thugs” and ordering them on Sunday to “Go home!”

But U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar froze the president’s new asylum policy late Monday, saying federal law clearly states that migrants can seek asylum anywhere on U.S. soil. Tigar said the president’s new rules exposed adults and children to “increased risk of violence and other harms.”

“Whatever the scope of the President’s authority, he may not rewrite the immigration laws to impose a condition that Congress has expressly forbidden,” the 37-page ruling said.

The Trump administration signaled Tuesday that it would continue to fight in court to implement the asylum policy, which a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department compared to the version of the travel ban that was narrowly upheld by the Supreme Court in June.

“As the Supreme Court affirmed this summer, Congress has given the President broad authority to limit or even stop the entry of aliens into this country,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman and Justice spokesman Steven Stafford said in the statement. “We look forward to continuing to defend the Executive Branch’s legitimate and well-reasoned exercise of its authority to address the crisis at our southern border.”

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Tigar’s decision is the latest in a string of defeats for a president who had pledged to crack down on illegal immigration, and has threatened to oust Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen as the number of families caught crossing the border each month continues to spiral.

Federal judges have frustrated Trump’s efforts to strip funding from sanctuary cities and rescind temporary work permits and deportation protections from roughly 1 million immigrants who were protected under past administrations. His “zero tolerance” policy, which forcibly separated parents and children at the border this spring, exploded into a public crisis. And the Republican-led Congress so far has declined to fund his promised border wall.

Four immigrant advocacy groups - the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, and Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles - filed suit over the asylum policy hours after the administration issued the new rule in early November.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who argued the groups’ case before Tigar at a court hearing Monday, said the judge’s ruling means that migrants can apply for asylum anywhere along the nearly 2,000 mile Mexican border, as they have done for decades.

But he said the decision to cross illegally is theirs alone.

“We don’t, and would not advise anybody to break the law,” he said. At the same time, he said, advocates believe many will attempt to sneak across the border because the U.S. government is limiting the number of asylum seekers who can cross legally.

On Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily closed the entire San Ysidro crossing in San Diego, where thousands are waiting to seek asylum. After installing additional layers of razor wire and concrete barriers, officials reopened the port with 10 of 26 vehicle lanes closed.

“The wait is so long, and it’s dangerous,” Gelernt said. “I think that there’s going to be people crossing between ports (of entry), as they always have.

“Out of necessity, historically, people have done what they need to do to save their lives,” he added. “That’s why Congress has this provision in the statute, and has never changed it.”

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Tigar’s temporary restraining order against Trump’s policy is in place until Dec. 19, when he will hear arguments on whether to issue a permanent injunction prohibiting it.

Advocates say asylum-seeking migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, but the Trump administration claims they are filing false asylum claims to gain entry into the United States.

Because of a fixed number of family detention beds and legal limits on how long the government can detain children, most migrant families are released. Many do not later show up for their deportation hearings.

Across the border in Mexico on Tuesday, migrants struggled to chart their next steps. Many said they were unaware of Tigar’s ruling, and some were still unwilling to make the journey illegally.

But others said they were growing increasingly impatient in their dirty, makeshift shelters in a crowded sports complex in Tijuana, where the bulk of the migrant caravan is staying. Migrants say tempers are starting to flare and sometimes boil over into fights.

“Yesterday we tried to go get on the list for asylum, but there was no one there,” said Pablo Rio, a 45-year-old Nicaraguan man who sitting on the street outside the sports complex. He said he fled his country after gun-wielding paramilitaries threatened him at his house in the city of Leon for protesting against President Daniel Ortega.

“We want to go legally, but we also can’t wait anymore,” he said. “I can’t go back to my country. . . If there were another option than wait here for three months or however long we have to wait to apply, I’d take it. But we want asylum.”

Quenedi Valladares, 53, from Olancho, Honduras, said he went to the border on Monday to put his name on a list for asylum.

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“They said it would be a long time before it would be my turn. Months. I don’t really know what to do,” Valladares said. “I just want to get to my family in Virginia, and I really don’t want to wait that long. It’s pretty rough in here and I’m getting tired. But I want to go legally.”

“All I know is that Trump said he wants to deport us all,” Valladares added. “But we are coming.”

But Ingrid Yolanis, a 24-year-old from Santa Barbara, Honduras, said she would wait to cross legally to seek asylum.

“My plan has always been to go to an official gate,” she said. “I don’t want to be treated like a criminal. I’m ready to wait however long it takes.”

Erika Pinheiro, who is coordinating legal services in Tijuana, is a lawyer with Al Otro Lado, one of the plaintiffs in the asylum-ban lawsuit. She said U.S. Customs and Border Protection has said they could start processing as many as 250 asylum seekers a day, but that has not happened. Instead, she is holding a series of meetings to explain migrants their rights and discuss how to proceed.

As Pinheiro thumbed through her 35-page powerpoint presentation on Tuesday, she crossed off the bullet point under the asylum process section that said “Enter the United States legally.”

“I’ve spent so long updating this over the past few months,” she said. “People are just desperate for information.”

The U.S. military’s role at the border also appeared unclear Tuesday. As of this week, about 5,800 service members were still deployed to the border, including about 2,800 in Texas, 1,500 in California and 1,500 in Arizona.

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On Tuesday, a U.S. defense official speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that the military was examining whether Tigar’s order changes anything for their operations. The troops had been acting in a support role to the Department of Homeland Security, with only incidental contact with migrants expected.

Michael Kucharek, a military spokesman, said Tuesday that U.S. troops will continue to assist U.S. Customs and Border Protection in a support role, providing helicopters, medical assistance and logistics help that includes installing barbed wire and other barriers along the southern border.

“We’re working closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to identify the areas along the border that need to be hardened and we apply the capabilities and capacity where needed,” he said.

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Kinosian reported from Tijuana. The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe and Nick Miroff contributed to this report from Washington.

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